BROKEN ARROW — With a subtle click of the heels by Civil Air Patrol Cadet Bailey Lunsford, World War II veteran Bob McDowell snapped to attention and saluted the young woman as she passed a few feet in front of him.
Lunsford and two other cadets performed the changing of the guard at a replica Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Monday as part of Floral Haven Memorial Gardens’ Memorial Day observance.
“The 21-gun salute is the highest honor a person can receive for serving in the military, so we take 21 steps across, stop for 21 seconds then resume 21 steps,” Lunsford, 17, told the spectators watching the reenactment. “We continually do this until the next changing of the guard.”
Between 1 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Monday, members of the Civil Air Patrol Composite Squadron’s Youth on Guard team watched over the tomb for 52 consecutive hours. They performed the changing of the guard every half hour.
Two teams of four cadets took turns doing 8-hour shifts. They did not let the weekend’s bad weather keep them from standing guard at the replica except during Saturday night’s tornado warnings, when they were forced to take cover. They returned to duty as soon as the sirens stopped wailing.
It was the first year they’ve watched over the hand-carved replica that was funded by Soldier’s Wish and donations from the community.
For McDowell, the discreet salute meant the world to him. Following the changing of the guard, the Army veteran approached the young woman to thank her for her actions, telling her it made his day and that he wished he could have captured it on video.
“I just think it’s great that these young people do this to honor those who served and died,” said McDowell, who was stationed in Texas during World War II. He said he was supposed to report to the Pacific Theater, but Japan surrendered shortly before he was to deploy. “It’s important we remember those who died serving our country.”
“We want to give back to those who gave their lives for us but remain unknown,” said Lunsford, who plans to enlist in the Air Force. “There are some who never came back from war, so we want to give their family a place to grieve and maybe find some closure.”
Cars continually entered Floral Haven as families and friends of deceased loved ones visited the thousands of graves of military veterans and others.
As names of veterans who died in the last year were broadcast over a nearby loudspeaker, Joneele Brewer sat in a rolling walker next to her late husband’s grave. Ross Brewer, a Korean War veteran, died in 2017.
Next to a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers, a small flag placed at the top of his headstone flapped in the wind. Counting the small graveside flags and the larger ones along all pathways, more than 4,000 flags covered the cemetery grounds.
“He was a flag man to the core of his being, so this would mean the world to him,” Joneele Brewer said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “This is where I left him. This is where he wanted to be. We chose this cemetery years ago because it’s so beautiful. It makes me happy to be here with him. I love this place. It’s an honor to have him here.”